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Ray Johnson, of Algona

Military service proved educational

November 4, 2012
By EMILIE NELSON-JENSON, emilie@messengernews.net , Messenger News

ALGONA - The desire to learn a skilled trade led Ray Johnson, a Humboldt native, to enter into military service.

"I did a semester of college before I went in," said Johnson. "I went voluntarily. I wanted to learn a trade."

Johnson joined the United States Navy on Feb. 28, 1958, and left from Des Moines to attend boot camp in San Diego, Calif.

Article Photos

-Messenger photo by Emilie Nelson-Jenson
Ray Johnson, of Algona, talks about the hat he received from Algona native Brian Blocker, who sailed on the final cruise of the USS Enterprise. Johnson helped construct the air craft carrier, which will be decomissioned in 2013.

Johnson had hoped to specialize in electronics while in the service, but learned after he enlisted that wouldn't be a possibility.

"I found out I was colorblind," he said. "I didn't know it until then. I wanted to do electronics, but they didn't like that if you were colorblind."

Johnson started training as a diesel mechanic and was assigned to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where he was stationed on the USS Lansing.

"I was on a destroyer escort out of Pearl Harbor during the Cold War," he said. "We spied on the Russians and kept track of the planes coming and going from the United States."

After a year on the USS Lansing, Johnson had the opportunity to take pre-engineering courses.

"You could go to the school of your choice, so I thought, 'I can take courses through Iowa State,'" he said. "But it had to be a school of your choice, as long as it was in Vallejo, Calif."

Getting into the courses was a selective process, Johnson said.

"There were 13 ships and one guy got in from every ship," he said. "I'm glad I had that semester of college first because the nuclear reactor school was very academic. We started with adding and subtracting and within three months we were doing calculus. It was a good school. You had to keep your grades up or they sent you back to sea. There were 185 in class when we started and only 83 of us graduated."

Following engineering school, Johnson was sent to Idaho Falls, Idaho, where he learned to work with nuclear reactors. He had expected to become a teacher in Idaho, but instead became a plank owner on the USS Enterprise, which was being constructed faster than had been expected.

A plank owner is a member of the first crew of a ship when that ship is placed in commission.

"I was on the Enterprise 13 months before it ever saw water," said Johnson.

He was on the ship when it was commissioned in 1961 and was part of its first cruise.

"I watched it go from about 50 people to 5,500 people," said Johnson.

Johnson sailed with the ship to the Mediterranean, visiting many countries during the voyage.

"We were just about every place you could go in the Mediterranean," he said. "Italy, France, Greece, Sicily."

He also toured the Holy Land while aboard the USS Enterprise.

"Everywhere we went, I had to see," he said. "Some of the guys would spend their time in bars; I'd take trips. I visited the Holy Land when we were in Lebanon, went every place I could."

Johnson married his wife, Pat, in 1961 while serving on the Enterprise. She taught in Virginia during her husband's time at sea.

Johnson never saw combat, having entered the military following the conclusion of the Korean War and was discharged just months after the Vietnam War began.

'The closest thing to confrontation that we saw was a Cuban blockade," he said.

"The Cuban blockade was a scary time," said Pat Johnson.

Several celebrities and President John F. Kennedy visited the USS Enterprise while Johnson was aboard.

"I was on guard when Bing Crosby and his wife came on board," he said. "I didn't know if they were clear. I had to tell them, 'sorry, you can't come in here.'"

After five years of service, Johnson was discharged from the Navy in 1963.

"It took a month to get back to Virginia," he said. "They weren't in any rush with the discharge."

Following his discharge from the military, Johnson attended Peru State College in Peru, Neb., where he studied physics and math. He took a teaching job in Grundy Center, staying for two years before moving to Algona, where he is retired from 31 years of teaching math, science and special education.

Johnson has many memories of his years on the USS Enterprise, which is set to be decommissioned in 2013. One of his prized possessions is a USS Enterprise hat which he received from Brian Blocker, an Algona native who has been serving on the ship's final mission.

"I was on its first cruise, and Brian is on its last," he said. "It sounds like they are going to scrap it when its last cruise is over."

"I can remember I used to stand and watch it come in over the horizon," said Pat Johnson.

"It was a good experience," said Ray Johnson. "It helps you grow up. I think everyone should do at least two years in the service."

 
 

 

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